February 11th, 2018

Male novelists jokes

I love many books written by men, and many men who write books–I even married one! That said, there are certain subsets of the male-novelists genome that can and, nay, must be mocked, and this is the best example of said mockery on the internet, from Mallory Ortberg, my favourite internet person. I watch it with great joy every few months–perhaps you will like it too.

Male novelists jokes

June 17th, 2012

Not a real review of Jennifer Egan’s *A Visit from the Goon Squad*

I didn’t read Jennifer Egan’s *A Visit from the Goon Squad* when it first came out, even though I heard it was very good and won a lot of prizes. There’s just too many books that’s true of, and I didn’t know who Jennifer Egan was anyway.

Then I heard a rumour: even though *Goon Squad* had “a novel” on the front cover, that was a marketing move. The rumour had it that it was a short-story collection in disguise. But unlike short-story collections that sales considerations force into the guise of a novel, apparently this one didn’t semi-suck–everyone seemed to love it. I was intrigued.

As soon as I started reading, I realized I did in fact know who Jennifer Egan is–I had read three of the first four stories previously, when they were published in the *New Yorker*. And they were very very good stories, which had impressed me at the time and did even more so in the book. I blame the fact that I never noticed they were all by the same person is that the voices are so various.

The reason for the “even more” love in the book context is because the stories illuminate each other–there’s layers of facts, character and context from one that make the next make sense in different ways than it did standing alone. And as I say, they were pretty darn strong standing alone.

By the time I was four stories into the book, I had realized that *Goon Squad* wasn’t a book of stories, and it wasn’t a novel–it was genuinely and truly both, which is pretty much the equivalent of a plate made of spoons. Nothing the world necessarily needs, or so it thinks, but when you see it done well, it makes your eyes pop open, makes you think about at how you’ve always defined both the plate and the spoon and if both couldn’t do quite a bit more than those limited definitions.

If they’re Jennifer Egan’s plate and spoon, they can.

This book is fucking amazing. It is the best thing I’ve read in years, so good I stopped thinking about how it was working and had to go back and read bits again for the technical lessons I knew were hiding in there. So good I loved and hated the characters and actually teared up for Sasha at one point (I never do that) and always wanted Benny to do better and genuinely love these people.

This book is *bigger* than most novels–its reach is larger, extending from the late 70s to the mid 2020s (and with that future tilt, the tiniest touch of science fiction). But not just temporal reach–there are at least 15 fully fleshed, vivid, active characters–as opposed to the 2 or 3 you get in so many novels, surrounded by a cast of “secondaries” that too-obviously know their place. The real joy of this book is that no one is secondary–everyone is firmly ensconced in their own lives, living as best they can through each day, through each story.

No, no, the real joy of *Goon Squad* is that it is a new kind of book, one with various focii, various voices, enormous ambition and no consideration at all of what shelf at the bookstore it will sit on. It’s stunning, and both inspiring and deeply deeply daunting to those of us trying to write in a similarly fearless way.

July 22nd, 2010

More on villains

Just a little while ago, I published an article on villains, about how badly written villains are plot twists and not characters, and well-written ones have humanity and motivations, even if they are loathesome.I have just come across a really great example of the kind of precisely worked, humanly rendered, utterly obnoxious fictional jerk I so admire–too bad I hadn’t read this book when I was writing the article.

The protagonist of Russell Smith’s Girl Crazy is 32-year-old Justin Harrison. He teaches Business English and Online Writing at a suburban vocation school, while taking an interest in neither the material nor his students nor his colleagues, hating his boss, ogling the departmental secretary, and doing as little work as possible. He spends his evenings playing violent video games and having tepid conversations with his ex-girlfriend, whom he seems never to have liked. He has few friends, though he stretches the count by including school acquaintances from 10 years ago who occasionally send him mass-mail invitations to parties. And when he sees a girl crying by the side of the road, his first thoughts are of sleeping with her.

In short, Justin is an utter asshole, who spends the entire book feeling entitled to a lifestyle that he has made no effort to achieve, and being snarky to those he believes aren’t on-side with his pathetic cause, which is pretty much everyone. Luckily, those Justin hurts are pretty much as awful as he is, and for most of the book he is too deluded and inefficient to do terribly much damage to anyone. What’s terrifying at the end is that maybe he’s gotten it together, efficiency-wise without gaining any actual insight–maybe the damage is coming.

And what’s amazing is that *Girl Crazy* is really engaging–I genuinely wanted to know what would happen to Justin at every turn, and was fascinated by the inner workings of his mind. I am very much aware that there are folks in the world–in my world–very similar to this guy. His self-interest and self-regard are utterly resonant with lesser jerks I have known. I liked the book because of Smith’s sharp prose, his funny/mean jokes, the narrative drive, but also because I’d always wanted to know what guys like this are thinking. And now, a little, I feel I do.

Justin feels it’s ok to stare at attractive women as long and obviously as he likes because they’ll never consent to sleep with him, so he deserves to take what he can get, as much of it as possible, whenever he can. Justin is dying to teach literature to his students, though they are training in trades and don’t want to learn it, and the department doesn’t want to offer it. When someone finally asks, “What do you care…about how much English lit our students know about?” Justin thought about this. It was not such an easy question. “I don’t,” he said finally. “I would just find it more interesting.”

I recognize this sort of self-absorbed pathos though I can’t hang out with guys like Justin because my breasts are too small to merit interest and I’d probably try to kill him with a butter knife after twenty minutes, anyway. But it’s great to read Smith’s dead-on evocation of a loser with a theory about everything, and watch how he tries to project himself into the big leagues and the life of a sexy girl.

I am sure no one cares what I think is wrong with fiction today, but for what it’s worth, I think a lot of writers go wrong conflating “protagonist” and “hero.” Of course, there is much great literature to be written about people who overcome adversity, learn from their mistakes, reach out to their loved ones, help the unfortunate, and achieve greatness without ever comprimising their values–but do *all* books have to be about them? I suppose we are the heroes of our own lives, but by any other standard I’d see Justin Harrison as a villain. Reading *Girl Crazy* let me live his life with interest for a week. I even queasily identified with him in places, and that, I think, is a great literary accomplishment for Smith–and certainly a tougher challenge than getting a reader to feel a commonality with the heroes we all feel ourselves to be.

October 15th, 2008

At least it’s not a majority

Almost more depressing than the election returns is the fact that they are the result of the lowest voter turn-out ever in Canada. How can there be democratic representation if the majority does not register an opinion to represent?

Other things that are stressing me out include ongoing Sturm und Drang over the Salon des Refuses/Penguin Anthology debate. Very interesting reading, all of it, but surely not designed to unknot one’s shoulders.

Also, my brief flirtation with blow-drying my hair must end, because over the past few weeks I have burnt the tops of both ears and, this morning, the back of neck. I think I would honestly rather go out with wet hair and risk catching my death. It’s worked every other year!

Though the post must have been stressful for the writer, more joyful reading is Emily Schultz’s great post on rewriting her novel at the Joyland blog. How wonderfully inspiring to know that books that seem so fully whole and complete when we read them as published fictions were once scrambled stacks of notes and nerves. It increases my awe, really, while at the same time, sparking a tiny voice in the back of my head that says, someday.

Not to mention fishing poles

So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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